Nicola Wallis and Ruth Clarke, Museum Educator/Learning Associate for Inclusion at The Fitzwilliam Museum, describe how they have chosen to respond to the members of our community who, for a variety of reasons, may be facing increased isolation or other forms of disadvantage during the COVID 19 lockdown. They focus here on non-digital forms of engagement, such as posted packages of art resources and stimulus materials and phone calls, and discuss how these activities relate to their existing dialogic models of pedagogy and engagement.
Visiting a museum is always a kind of exchange. The museum offers a visitor its collection, and in return, the visitor responds with emotion (surprise, delight, curiosity, awe, disgust, even indifference) or a physical reaction (devoting time to closely examining an object in detail, hurrying past another). It is this dynamic flow of ideas that builds the web of relationships that make up the museum: it’s not just a big stone box with unfeeling objects inside but a home where connections and exchanges are made between artists and viewers, materials and spaces, the past and the present. It’s why people find museums both relaxing and stimulating; or informative and confusing, or comforting and threatening at the same time.
These exchanges and encounters are what we think makes museum education special. So how might we continue to support this kind of dialogue when it is not possible to bring people and museum objects together in all the ways we have done in the past, and why is it important?
If we consider the museum as part of the community, rather than simply providing a service to a community, then it is possible to see how the museum cares about people, while they in turn also care about it. Maintaining contact with audiences in the ways described below is positive, not just because people are receiving things that they are genuinely in need of (art materials, activity suggestions, conversation & interaction), but also because people care that the museum is still playing an active role in the community.
When the lockdown began in March, the Fitzwilliam Museum and our fellow University of Cambridge Museums developed a range of strategies for continuing to nourish audiences. The projects described here focus on the non-digital offers of engagement, created for those who in addition to barriers to accessing online content might be facing other types of disadvantage as well, for example, loneliness, domestic abuse, financial problems, or health issues.
One aspect of the non-digital offer was created with families and young children in mind, while another was designed for elders.
For the families with young children, we first contacted our partners in the community with whom we have already built trusting relationships. We are used to co-creating activities using our shared expertise so were able in this case to bring together an understanding of the museum collections and knowledge of the families and their circumstances. Through discussions we created activity packs containing:
- A4 sketch book
- Glue stick
- 12 colouring crayons
- Pencil sharpener
- Coloured cellophane
- Wax crayons
- A4 reproductions of artworks from the collection, each with accompanying activity ideas and colouring sheets
We knew that it was important to provide stimulus for making activities, but also materials that were flexible enough to be used in multiple ways rather than simply a kit with one outcome in mind. Safety and suitability for a range of different ages and environments were also considerations.
Through continued dialogue with our community partners, we have been able to gather feedback on what people have thought of the packs:
We received your lovely art pack today and Fr was delighted, especially by the scissors.A (Mother of Fr from the Museum’s Playgroup in Residence)
The children will be SO excited about the photo of the armour, it made such an impression on them.Headteacher of the Museum’s Playgroup in Residence
She also commented that the families were excited to receive the packs, not just because of the contents but because it was ‘from the Museum!’
I received the activity pack today — and it is lovely ???? You have chosen the pictures so well — I remember all the children being fascinated with the horse in armour at the workshops.Child and Family Worker from the local Child & Family Hub
thanks for the pack… A particularly likes the scissors and crayonsI (mother of A from a local playgroup)
This was a lifesaver as I’ve run out of things to do with my two boys.B (a mother being supported by her local Child & Family Centre)
When we send these activity packs to families, it’s about more than just offering them something to do. It sends a message that we know they are there, we know what they might like, and we care about them. Such a message does not only travel in one direction, it also rebounds back to us. At this time where we wrestle with ideas about what role a closed museum can play during a crisis such as this, and look for meaningful ways to remain useful and helpful to our audiences, it is a comfort to our professional selves to know that we are still able to make these connections.
Our second example is the activity that has been developed with the Dance and Time with the Museum participants and partners. Led in collaboration with artist Filipa Pereira-Stubbs, this programme is founded upon a partnership between the University Museums and residents from Cambridge City Council Sheltered Housing Schemes. In 2019, the programme expanded to include Addenbrookes Hospital, Arthur Rank Hospice, two residential care settings and two-day centers.
Working together, the Museum team and participants have found that shared journeys through art with the invitation to relax, look slowly, move and share learning makes us feel good! Each partner, each setting, each participant shares with each other this enthusiasm, but this is where the commonality stops.
In March 2020, with the spread of the Coronavirus and the onset of ‘lockdown’, recognising this diversity of settings and resources was key in exploring if and how the programme could continue.
Museums and galleries shared characteristic of ‘care’ — to tend, foster, give thoughtful consideration, protect, be vigilant and invest — really came into play here with the process of starting to understand people’s experiences both now and going forward. We needed to listen and understand what resources they had, what challenges they were facing, what were the emotional qualities of their experience, and how might they connect with the programme.
With the Sheltered Housing residents this ‘careful’ process of understanding and then shared building began with a series of one to one phone calls. The calls revealed that most people were on their own in flats, anxious and bored and quickly running out of (phone) conversation with friends and family; very few had access to or familiarity with digital devices, but all did have a phone. Regular, short, small group hosted conference calls emerged as an option that looked good enough to try, with the post backing this up through the distribution to people’s homes of a series of Object in Focus artworks (selected for their serenity and beauty) and regular correspondence to confirm session details.
At the time of writing this piece, there are nine conference call groups with 3–5 people in each and calls are fortnightly for 45 minutes. These have become a lockdown date, with people being ready and waiting for the sessions, full of ideas, interpretations, insights and emotional response. A bonus here is that the City Council Independent Living Team staff, who support the schemes, are also attending and enjoying reconnecting with people, away from the crisis.
In response to A street, possibly in Port-Marly, c. 1875–77 Alfred Sisley (1839–1899):
I’m thinking of going down that street on my bike, on those cobbles … wearing a pair of jeans that I’ve cut off at the knee and a strappy top. It’s a fluffy cloud day and I’m going to wave to them and say bonjour!
it looks busy, people are out and about meeting and greeting, it’ll be like us after the lock down.
In response to Springtime, 1886, Claude Monet, 1840–1926:
I might have to go out this Thursday night when I’m doing my clapping for the N.H.S and stand under and enjoy the scent (the blossom tree in the street)
It feels luscious I would put my tent up on the grass… it’s the sort of grass you’d take your shoes off and walk barefoot. I think it’s fabulous, it’s of the moment and with our circumstances it makes me feel happy
Anxiety is frequently being identified, by partners, as a significant challenge for care home residents, hospital and hospice patients and the staff who care for them. Ongoing dialogue is shaping a spectrum of interventions designed to help with this (drawing on the Dance and Time with the Museum practice).
To reach a broad spectrum of people, when and where possible, a video series, Relax, Look, Imagine has been created to capture the practice. Deconstructing these, however, provides the tools and resource to work remotely, person to person. For those settings where the Museum has an established relationship the Object in Focus artwork packs have been shared. These are accompanied by session facilitation guides (the script from the videos with notes) and regular catchups with staff in order to reflect, plan, and learn together. To enhance people’s connection to the Museum, the team have also put together postcard art activity packs based upon the artworks and set the scene for exchange and sharing to take place.
Responses from participants to Landscape in North Wales, 1938, by Stanley Spencer (1891–1959):
I’d go to the bottom of the hills and slowly climb to the top and there would be fresh air freedom it’s wonderful
I found myself out in the fields, it makes me feel richer. I’m observing my world it helps me take time to look again at what’s around me
I feel a calmness, you could sit on the grass and drift off to sleep. My dog is rolling over on the carpet, she’s really enjoying herself.
Finally, a series of postcards have been produced to offer a light touch and flexible opportunity to engage with each of the Object in Focus artworks, designed specifically for use in health and residential care settings where staff time may be limited. Each card features a high-quality reproduction of an artwork on one side and on the reverse three prompts that invite curiosity, looking and imagination, alongside a space for responses to be shared and a link to the accompanying Relax, Look, Imagine film.
- The programme’s activities will run until July 2020, at which point the Museum and partners will review and plan for the next six months.
- Currently approximately 120 participants are taking part in person to person activity and a further estimated 4,000+ (Addenbrookes Hospital community) will be invited through digital and printed resource.
- Impact and evaluation, the programme is partially funded by the Lottery’s Community fund, included within which is the role of an external evaluator. The Theory of Change developed through this will continue to be used to explore and measure programme outcomes.
Nicola Wallis and Ruth Clarke
Museum Educator/Learning Associate for Inclusion
The Fitzwilliam Museum